If I think back to it, I can still feel that moment when I really thought you were going to burst my skull. Your whole weight pushing my head into the ground, your mouth right next to my ear, hissing at me that I couldn’t tell anyone. Like somehow if I did, people would mistake her illness for your weakness. Even after the first three times I’d promised I wouldn’t, you didn’t let go, and when you did, you left your knee buried in my chest. I carried that weight, your weight, every day until she died, all those years later. But I never told anyone, not even my parents. I even lied to them when it happened, and I pretended to share their shock and grief at the news.
I don’t know if you knew about all those useless tags that followed you through school. I heard them all the time when people questioned why I defended you, why I stood up for you when you lashed out. “A very angry young man”, that was what the adults used to call you, the teachers, the other parents at football, even my mum and dad. I still cringe about that, I really thought they would see through it, but maybe it really was only me that knew. And I did, I knew. I knew that you weren’t angry, you were suffering. When you lashed out at people, I knew it was more of a flail than an attack. That really, for just a moment, it was too much for you to hold everything back. Now that we’re older, I’ve seen it in others too; maintaining a stiff upper lip makes you much more likely to split someone else’s. I’ll admit, I took advantage of that sometimes. Every now and then it helped to be friends with the school “head case”. It helped when I got my first boyfriend, when you didn’t question it, and happily smacked the people that did. I never asked you to do that, but I also never asked you not to, and gladly hid behind you as you did. Then when I got a girlfriend and even more people had questions, there you were again, and by then you’d gotten pretty good at it. Punches swift enough for teachers not to see, and hard enough for people not to call you out on it. I’m not proud of exploiting your emotional turmoil like that, your rashness and willingness to disregard the consequences in a way that I wasn’t prepared to do. But in my defence, I was a teenager, I’m not sure I really thought in those terms.
When your mum did die, you’d just kicked the living shit out of Christian Ryan. Everyone wrote that one off, even Christian. I remember him coming into tutor time, shining black-purple rings around his eyes, jaw swollen and just saying “It’s ok. I know it was about his mum, I don’t blame him.” I remember being shocked by a sixteen-year-old being so mature and sensible about it and thinking back I wonder if they were really his words or those of his parents or a teacher coming out of his mouth. But I was also surprised at how short-sighted people were. “It doesn’t explain why he’s always been like that though.” But, it did., of course it did. People accepted that her death had upset you to the point of needing to take it out on people, but somehow her illness shouldn’t have. And all of that is without even mentioning your dad. How you managed to get through it all still amazes me to this day.
All of this sounds like my memory of our schooldays friendship is one of just intimidation and violence and sympathy. In reality, it’s also one of laughter, of stupid teenage boys being stupid teenage boys. Of thinking we could build a go-kart out of the wood in my parents’ garage, of giving up and burning it in the woods behind the park. Of having a perfectly contrasting and complimentary set of video game skills which meant that no game was a match for our combined efforts. We were really, honestly, friends. You weren’t a charity project that I stuck to because I knew about your mum, I put up with the bad stuff because I knew, but I kept being friends with you for the good parts. And I think the memory of the good parts is why I agreed to meet you, to come and see you, even when everyone else fell back on to the old rumours and nicknames when they heard. “Of course he got arrested, he was always destined for prison.”, “I’m surprised he hadn’t killed someone sooner, to be honest.”, “You haven’t seen him for years, you don’t owe him anything.” I didn’t go out of a sense of debt, I went because I couldn’t believe my friend was a murderer.
It wasn’t like the films. We weren’t talking on a phone through a Perspex screen, you weren’t dressed in an orange jumpsuit. We sat in that clinically white room, you dressed head to toe in that washed out grey tracksuit and we talked, as best we could. I did everything I could to block out all the other conversations, the tears and silent hand holding. I tried to just focus in on your words, hoping you’d give me the confirmation that I needed, that they’d got it all wrong. And it broke my heart when I realised that they hadn’t. That you’d really done it.
“I’m really glad you got my message. Thank you for coming. I didn’t really have anyone else who I thought would.” Your eyes were glued to the floor. Even once you’d mellowed into adulthood, you never could properly say how you felt.
“Of course, you know I’ll always come. I’m sorry that I didn’t try to get in touch more. You know, before.” You looked up at that and nodded sadly.
“Me too. I’m sorry I had to go through your parents too, it was the only number I could remember.” You laughed. “Lucky that they hadn’t moved, I guess.”
“Yeah, but that’s ok, they didn’t mind.” Every response came with a delay. I think we were both taking a bit of time to figure out how it was supposed to work.
“Did they already know I was in here?”
“Yeah, they did. We saw it in the paper. People at home talked about it quite a lot.” You looked at the ceiling. “Sorry. You probably didn’t want to hear that.”
“It’s ok. I knew they would. Pyscho kid proves them all right in the end.”
This was the first opening, my first chance to ask. But I couldn’t do it, not yet. “I don’t know about that. Everyone was really surprised, shocked, I think.” Your gaze dropped back to me.
“Not everyone, I bet.” You paused; I saw the question stick for a moment in your throat before you got it out. “Were you?” Your eyes were pleading with me to say yes, but I didn’t need prompting.
“I really was. Really sad too.” I looked around the room, taking in all of the others for a moment. “Has it been awful in here?”
You shrugged. “Not too bad really. If you’ve killed someone, people tend to leave you to yourself.” That felt weird, said so casually. My heart was ready to drop. “Some people saw it as a bit of challenge to their ego at first, I think. But it’s been ok.” The pause was there, and I couldn’t wait any more.
“Did you? I mean did you do it then?” I couldn’t figure out what you were thinking as you looked into my eyes then, and my heart was thumping like I was on the brink of something enormous. Weirdly, my mind went back to being on one knee, ring out in front of me, the only other time I could remember being that terrified and nervous as an adult. The prisoner at the next table was looking over, watching, listening.
“Kill him you mean? Yeah, I did.” And there it was. The nerves were gone, numb nausea in its place. Spaced out, I tried to come back to the room, to be present for this conversation that I had hoped so much we wouldn’t be having. That I had hoped, actually prayed for the first time since I was a child, would be different. And then you laughed. And I just felt sick. “Yeah I killed him. I’m not proud of it, but I’m also not, not proud. Can you understand that?” I shook my head. “Not really.”
“No, I guess not.” You looked like you pitied me. Like not being able to understand the feeling of having a man’s life on your conscience made me lesser, or something. The man at the next table got up, as did a couple of others behind you, I checked the clock, we had a minute left. Fist bumps, winks, laughs as they passed you. You were enjoying it. You were fitting in. That hurt more than the admission, I think. “I’m sorry.” You were looking at me again, the smile gone, and I knew you meant it. “I’m sorry that I did it, for you I mean. You always had my back, always stood up for me. I know that you did more than I even saw. And I just proved everyone right.” There were tears starting to form in your eyes, but a rough wipe with your cuff dealt with that.
“It’s ok. You don’t need to be sorry.” A half laugh. “I think I probably should be.”
You looked at the clock too. “That’s it. Time up.” I stood up, I looked at the guards, not sure what I could and couldn’t do. But you hugged me, and I hugged back, hoping it said it more than I had managed to. “I’ll come back. Just call me when you want me to.” You shook your head.
“Maybe. At least I have your number now, I won’t need to book it in with your mum.” I laughed, and held a pathetic half wave up as you left, and I watched you go.
That weird little wave said it all, I could feel your discomfort as you watched me leave. Fuck, that day was worse than the trial. At the trial there was no one there I knew, no one to be disappointed. Obviously, my dad didn’t come. And If he had, I think they would have found me guilty faster; I’d have probably mounted the edge of the box and punched him. Of course, my legal team were disappointed, but that was more for their own sake as it was for mine. No one there gave a shit about me, really. But seeing your face when I admitted to the murder, that will stay with me forever. I could see in your eyes how much it hurt you to hear me say it. And that hurt me. I really thought you’d know. I thought you would realise.
You always supported me, always stood up for me, always understood why I did things better than even I did. And I thought you’d understand this. I remember whilst I waited for you to arrive, I thought back to the time when everyone blamed me for stealing phones from the changing rooms. I was the obvious suspect, detention regular, seemed to hate everyone. Only you stood up for me, told everyone that I wouldn’t steal, that I wasn’t like that. You told me years later that you knew I wouldn’t have taken them because I only ever did things as a reaction, that I never did anything that was thought through. I was taken aback by how much you’d thought about it, how little I had, and how right you were. But that didn’t stop everyone turning on me, until eventually that little prick Frank was caught with them. So, I thought that this would be like that, that you’d know, just like then, that I didn’t kill him. I showed you the smile, the laugh, the winks, every element of the artifice I’ve constructed in my time here, all the parts of the mask that I hide behind to keep myself safe. Parts of the ‘me’ I was in here that weren’t really me, that you would recognise as false.
I knew from the first time that someone called me ‘killer’, with that tone of respect, that I would need to wear that label in here. Even though it’s a lie. That was the part I always hated at school, the names. Everyone would call me a psycho before I’d even done anything to earn it, and that would make me see red, and right on cue I’d do something to live up to the tag. My anger made them dislike me, their dislike made me angry. I figured all of that out too late, like a lot of things we did when we were young, I suppose. But even after I had I couldn’t get to grips with it. Even in here, once or twice, I’ve gone after someone for something they’ve said, or called me, and then the whispers about the killer get louder and I can just disappear into them. So, I’ve learnt to embrace it, not how to change it. That’ll probably make you even sadder to hear, so I’ll make sure you never do.
I almost called you for the trial, but when the barrister said we wouldn’t be using a character witness, I changed my mind. Not that being a witness wasn’t the only reason I wanted you there, really, but once I knew that, I also knew we were going to lose. And I didn’t want you to see that. The evidence was against me, I knew that, and the truth sounded like a cover story, and a bad one at that. The bruise on his face, the broken nose. The cut and swelling on my hand. They all proved that my story was true, but also seemed to prove the prosecution’s. Yes, I did hit him, your honour. No, I didn’t kill him. I punched him, broke his nose, then got him ice from the freezer to put on it. I know that’s strange, your honour, but that’s just how we were. I was in the bathroom when he fell, so I have no idea what happened, what he was trying to do to fall like that. I was the one that found him. I found my friend, and he was my friend, dead on the floor, bleeding from the back of his head, bits of skin, blood and hair on the corner of the mantlepiece. I found my friend dead, and not only do I have to live with that memory, but I have to live with it in here, faking responsibility for it. Maybe I did kill him. Maybe when I punched him, I did more damage than just the nose, and that’s why he fell. But maybe I didn’t, maybe it was something random, or stupid, or both. But that doesn’t really matter. Like I said, I’ve never learnt to control that temper, and if I had, then I’d never be in this position.
It’s a catch twenty-two. If I lodge an appeal, and claim that I didn’t kill him, then I lose the protection that label gets me. If I don’t, it’s a life imprisoned, even after I get out. That’s why I need you. That’s why I need you to see. You can change things from the outside, without me. I know that won’t be easy. You’re married now, you’ve got a life I was never a part of, there’s nothing in it for you. You’ll have to argue with all those people who you went toe to toe with over me when we were kids. Even your mum. You should have heard her voice when she picked up the phone. She was scared of me, and I don’t blame her. But that was worse than hearing the sentence read out too. It’s the way people you know change their view of you that’s the worst thing, and I know that must sound strange. But I would take a twenty-year prison sentence and everyone knowing I was innocent over living free with everyone thinking I was a killer. But they do. You do. So why would you help me? I wouldn’t, I know that, and I can’t even offer my help. You probably don’t want it though, you were always better at fixing things without me, after I’d been taken away. I suppose this isn’t that different, you’re outside the headteacher’s office, clearing up the biggest mess I’ve made so far. You don’t deserve that, you never did, but I need it.
I haven’t given up, and I won’t give up. I know that you’ll figure it out. I put it all in that hug, and if you come back to see me again, I’ll think of something else, something more. You’ll figure it out, you’ll know. You always do.